Season two of Vice TV’s Dark Side Of The Ring docuseries has pulled no punches in its nine-episode run, covering everything from Chris Benoit’s last days to the wild story of Herb Abrams. But the season two finale carries with it a heaviness all its own: It’s the story of Owen Hart‘s death, as told by not only the people who were there (including Jim Ross, Jimmy Korderas and the Godfather), but also by Hart’s widow, Martha, and their two children, Oje and Athena.
For those who don’t know the story, Hart was in the midst of a revival of his Blue Blazer persona, and the WWE (at the time, the WWF) wanted him to rappel down from the rafters of the arena in Kansas City for his Intercontinental Championship match with the Godfather at Over The Edge. Only something went terribly wrong, and Hart plummeted 80 feet to his death, in front of tens of thousands of fans. After paramedics removed Hart from the ring, the show was resumed by the decree of Vince McMahon, certainly one of the darkest decisions the WWE CEO has ever made.
We caught up with Martha Hart to discuss her involvement with Dark Side Of The Ring and to talk further about Owen Hart’s life and death.
UPROXX: Why did you choose to tell this story now, after all these years? What was it that made this situation right for you?
MARTHA HART: There’s a few things. We had just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Owen Hart Foundation. But it’s actually a story I really hoped would always be told, It was kind of by accident. The Dark Side Of The Ring producers got in touch with me through the Owen Hart Foundation last year, and they had broached this project. I do get a lot of requests, and when I do, I give them the courtesy of my time, and I looked at it and I put together some thoughtful questions and I thought, “Well, if you want to do this project, let’s see how you answer my questions.” When they sent the responses back, I was really impressed with their honesty and I liked what they said. Then we chatted some more and Evan Husney, one of the producers who was in Toronto at the time, flew to Calgary and we went to dinner. I probed him some more with more questions. Unbeknownst to him, he gave me every single correct answer. He was really honest and upfront, and nervous. But I guess it was all meant to be. I’m so happy with the episode. It’s a really well done, informative episode. The producers not only had the good intentions to tell the story, but they had the means to make it happen. Even though I didn’t have creative control, per se, they really have created the story I always hoped would be told.
It felt as equally your story as Owen’s story. This tells an entirely different side of who he was—it was refreshing to see the home videos and hear about how dedicated Owen was as a family man. Even your children participated.
People really get to see what they didn’t know before. People knew him as this wrestler, and that’s okay, but now what they’re getting to see is the real person that he was, and how amazing he was as a father and a husband and a human being. He was such a kind person and so helpful to everyone, and such a humanitarian. Even though the episode doesn’t get into it too much, he was just such a happy person. He always wanted to spread that joy and help people any way he could.
In the episode, you say on the night of Owen’s death, you received a phone call from Vince McMahon, who then passed you off to a doctor who told you what happened. Were you not actually watching the pay-per-view live? Did you normally not watch Owen’s matches as they aired?
Normally I didn’t watch. That was his job. It wasn’t all-encompassing in our life. Like a lot of marriages, you talk about your work with each other, but you don’t live and breathe it. But it wasn’t uncommon for me not to watch the matches, and that particular night I wasn’t watching and didn’t know about it.
Was that phone call the last time you ever spoke to Vince McMahon? Did he or anyone else from the WWE ever apologize or express their condolences?
No, they didn’t. It wasn’t the last time I spoke to Vince, but it was the last time for quite some time. Days and days had passed and I hadn’t heard from him. Then he eventually started reaching out to me, I think probably on the advice of his legal counsel. But he never apologized to me. I have heard somewhere along the way that he said something to that effect, that he took responsibility [for Owen’s death] — and he should. They were responsible. So I appreciated that, but it was never said directly to me.
One of the most powerful moments of the episode is when you pulled out the quick-release clip that essentially led to Owen’s death, among other items from the time period. Was that the first time you had revisited that in decades, or do you find yourself going through those items even when cameras aren’t around?
Doing the whole episode was really challenging for me. It took me a long time. I was in a very dark place for a long time. To revisit all those memories and look at the clip… It was disturbing and it was upsetting. Even when I watch that episode, I can see how sad I am and how it took me back to where I was and how I didn’t like being in that place. I can see physically how draining it was for me, and it’s painful to see that. Like I said, I worked really hard to recover. To put yourself back in those shoes and walk that path again and relive those feelings, it takes you back. Now certainly I’ve resolved my loss, and you have to do that in life, but it will definitely always be hard to revisit. It’s like shrapnel in your body: You can learn to live with it but it always has the potential to hurt you. You move one way or you think about one thing… That’s kind of the way I view it.
But at the same time, even though it was really difficult I think it’s a very important story to tell. I think people need to realize this billion-dollar company put Owen at risk, and it was unnecessary, and they did it for their own selfishness, and they hired riggers that weren’t qualified to save money and because they wanted something that was inappropriate that qualified riggers refused to do. And they knew they refused to do it, and they knew why — because these riggers they hired before, who had rigged everybody from the Rolling Stones to Elton John to Robin Williams, said to them, “No, we don’t do this, we don’t have talent just quick-releasing themselves. That’s not what we do. We have them in securing harnesses with locking carabiners.”
Everything with that stunt was done inappropriately. The harness used was the type of harness you use to drag someone behind a car. It wasn’t meant for suspending someone 80 feet above the ground. It was cutting off Owen’s circulation and he couldn’t breathe in that harness. And, of course, that snap shackle was meant for use on sailboats. It was totally inappropriate. It’s meant to open on load, so the fact that Owen’s weight was hanging on it made the possibility of opening it that much greater, because that’s how it’s designed. The whole stunt was designed to fail.
We had every top rigging expert in the whole industry on our side. They gave us affidavits or they were deposed. Vince had no one that would stand up and say on his behalf that they had done things properly. Vince knew that. He knew he didn’t have a case. A proper rigger would make sure there were redundancies and make sure the talent didn’t have any control over the stunt.
I don’t know how much you’re keeping up with WWE these days, but they have continued to run shows during this COVID-19 pandemic, and on their most recent pay-per-view, they actually staged a stunt where two wrestlers were thrown off a rooftop. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that?
Well, first of all, I wasn’t aware, because I don’t follow wrestling. But I’m not surprised. Even when Owen’s incident happened, what the talent was looking for was good leadership, and Vince McMahon completely failed in that regard. He did everything wrong. I’m not surprised. They always push the envelope, and that’s another thing to know — this was a company who was so disrespectful to Owen. After he died in the ring, they just scraped his body off the mat and paraded out match after match after match in a wrestling ring that had Owen’s blood on it, and the boards were broken underneath from his fall. The wrestlers could feel the dip in the ring where he had fallen. Right out of the gate, they had no regard for human life whatsoever.
On top of that, this is a company that sued me, the widow, for breach of Owen’s contract because I didn’t sue them in Connecticut, I sued them in Kansas City. It’s like, “I’m not suing you for breach of contract, I’m suing you for his wrongful death.” They actually sued me, and I had to go and hire legal counsel in Kansas City for the wrongful death lawsuit as well as legal counsel in Connecticut to fight them suing me. On top of that, they manipulated Owen’s family, which caused some of them to work against me in the lawsuit, which was another betrayal. It was just hand-over-fist disrespect to me and Owen. They’re the dirtiest fighters on the planet. But they underestimated me, and they didn’t realize I would fight till the end. I didn’t care. It was wrong, and they needed to be accountable. I was going to hold their feet to the fire.
If there were any good to come of this, it would be that the Owen Hart Foundation was created. In the past 20 years, your organization has helped countless lives, which is something I’m sure you’re proud of and something Owen would have been proud of as well. Additionally, I think it’s interesting that both of your children have chosen very honorable careers with your son pursuing human rights law and your daughter earning a journalism degree and pursuing animal humanitarianism. Do you believe those still would have been their career paths had Owen continued wrestling into his 40s and 50s?
I’m sure they would still have the career paths they chose. Owen wasn’t planning on wrestling being his lifelong career by any means. He had planned to be a teacher, then sort of got lured into the family business to help his dad rebuild his territory after Vince McMahon was buying up all the smaller promotions. Owen was always trying to escape wrestling and do other types of work. It wasn’t his life’s work. He always hoped to be out of it before his kids went to school, and that didn’t happen, but he definitely would not have encouraged them to follow in his footsteps. He would’ve been really proud of the direction they’ve taken. I know I am.
UPDATE: WWE’s outside legal counsel Jerry McDevitt issued the following statement to CBS Sports regarding their interview with Martha Hart, which contained similar discussion regarding lawsuits filed between WWE and the Hart family. McDevitt comments:
“The reality is, we’ve never told our side of the story of what happened — at least not outside of court. We told it in court, but when she talks about the way the lawsuit unfolded over the years, it really isn’t accurate what she’s saying. What she did whenever this happened is, she hired a lawyer in Kansas City who we caught essentially trying to fix the judicial selection process to get a judge that was more to their liking. We caught them and went all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. The Missouri Supreme Court said, ‘No, no, no. We’re not going to let that happen.’ They essentially appointed an independent judge to come in from outside of Kansas City to oversee the proceedings. We were basically trying to find out what happened that night. Martha was not even remotely interested in finding out what happened that night; she just wanted to used it as a vehicle to beat up a business that she didn’t like that her husband was in, the wrestling business.”
“Her and her lawyer, in reality, had tried to get the members of the Hart family, Owen’s brothers and sisters, to sign a document in which they would agree to support Martha and her case and they would not talk to WWE. In exchange for that, they were all promised a share of any verdict or settlement, which is highly illegal, completely improper and you can get in big trouble for that. What happened was some of the members of the Hart family were offended by this because they realized this was wrong. … They knew this was wrong and they faxed me those documents, which I fell out of the chair when I read them. I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is completely illegal, you can’t do this stuff.’ All of that was then brought to the attention of the judge in Kansas City.”
“She talked about how $18 million settlement, she didn’t really want to do that, she wanted justice. Again, that’s just not true. There was court-ordered mediation. We went to the mediation, and her lawyers were demanding $35 million and some admission of punitive damages. Vince told her right there, ‘Look, Martha, I feel so bad for what happened. I feel responsible because this happened on my watch. I want to take care of you and your family, I loved Owen.’ He was almost crying. We offered $17 million to take care of her. How many times does a CEO walk in a room and say he feels responsible? ‘I’m not going to argue, I just feel responsible for what happened.’ They turned it down; they wanted to go to court for their $35 million. Fine, we’ll go and litigate. The next day, I get a call from her Canadian lawyer, saying they didn’t want to do it because they knew what they were facing with the other things I talked about. They said, ‘If you could put a little more money in. If you can go to $18 million we’ll settle right now.’ That’s how the settlement went down.”
Additionally, WWE took objection to Martha Hart’s comment that Vince McMahon never apologized to her. WWE provided to UPROXX court transcripts of Hart’s sworn testimony on July 10, 2002, in which she indicates McMahon said he was sorry during a mediation session which was later terminated. In the court transcripts, Hart also describes McMahon as “a very unemotional person that is, you know, emotionally detached, and so I was glad that I could reach him and make him realize what had been lost here.”
The season two finale of ‘Dark Side Of The Ring’ airs May 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Vice TV.